In my adult life I’ve studied a couple of languages. In the mid 2000’s I studied French in the hopes of being able to work in Quebec more. I met a local tutor whom I met with weekly and she and I worked together. I got to the point where I could speak relatively well though still had a very small vocabulary made up mostly of things I cared about – food, music, and at the time, politics.
In 2008 it paid off. I got some work in Quebec City. It wasn’t my skill with French, though. That was definitely not ready for work. But my technical knowledge was what the client needed and so I headed out. I ended up living there for eight months. I was able to speak French every day and it improved slowly. At first I was terrified to use my French with anyone lest I make a mistake. I make my money through technical communication so to leave my comfortable language where I feel confident and to go to another language where I feel like I sound like a big toddler was hard for me. I made a go of it and made lots of mistake. I still remember trying to buy bus tickets at the convenience store and pronounced the double l in “Billet” like someone would pronounce the name “Bill” and taking forever to be understood before finally learning the way to pronounce it. Not only did I keep thinking back it for the entire day feeling stupid, I never forgot that moment. The embarrassment is now gone but the word is forever properly burned in my brain. As for however I mispronounced the word they used for “monthly pass” I don’t even remember. The two laughing teenage girls who sold it to me didn’t tell me what I should’ve said.
But I stuck with it and made deals with myself that when I walked out the door for the day I would stop using English. My French improved, but my ability to deal with failure improved even more quickly. After only a couple of months I made my last memorable mistake: being unable to explain what I wanted on my burger at a fast food restaurant. I knew everyone in line behind me was looking at me and feeling impatient. But somehow I was able to give myself a break and nine years later I still remember thinking “This would’ve mortified me months ago but this is how I learn.”
I’ve stopped studying French since then and have lost most of the ground I gained. Instead, after a couple decades of meaning to I started studying Hindi. I woke up one day and thought “I always say ‘someday I will learn’ but unless I make a choice, someday will never come.” I found my teacher a few days later and started classes.
The language has been way harder than French. I’ve had to learn a new alphabet, new consonants, and a vocabulary most of whose words don’t go back to the Latin I studied in high school or anywhere else familiar.
Progress has been very slow. When I first started I remember people asking me to “Say something in Hindi” and I’d go blank. What could I say? What did I know? Nothing. It was probably a year before I could say the most basic of sentences.
I’m probably where I was when I started my 8 month assignment in Quebec. Not great but passable. I can get food, ask simple questions. Yesterday I was able to ask for help finding a movie. I watch Hindi movies and catch a sentence here and a word there and then a little cheering section goes wild in my brain and drowns out the film again so I don’t know what was said next.
In November I spent a month in India and made a go of it. Somehow the lack of embarrassment I learned in Quebec carried over and I made a go of it often. I succeeded some and other times people would go off in to long sentences far more complicated than my toddler-sized vocabulary can handle and I stare blankly. But I could feel it improving slowly – and the more I met people who spoke no English the better I got.
But I admit now that I’m now frustrated with myself and unsure of what to do next. My opportunities to practice have been so poor. A few folks at work will talk a little on conference calls just before everyone shows up but that’s only a minute or two and the conversation is pretty much the same. I’m getting good at the “how are you?” “Good” “Busy” or “Happy”. Likewise though I live in a neighbourhood where 25% of folks speak Urdu, I’m not sure how far I can get with commercial transactions. There is only so much practice I need buying groceries or dinner or looking for a movie. At some point I need to have sustained practice for more than the 1-2 hours/week we do in my class.
In the long term I think I need to work on getting to India more often – ideally for business as the airfare is expensive enough that I can only see going once/year – or less if more than one of us go. But in the short term what are people’s experience learning language? How are you finding language learning partners? Or how are you managing without them? I got to this point with French and got frustrated and eventually gave up. As nice as it would feel to not feel frustrated and discouraged, I don’t want to give up this time.
I think I need to change up how I learn and practice but I’m completely unsure how to change it up short of moving my family to India and just diving in. And as interesting as that would be for us all, we’re also in the process of applying for Canadian citizenship and there’s a residency requirement we need to meet so we can’t spend too long away without moving back.
So, multilingual friends, what do you do? How do you make steady progress when you can’t just completely immerse yourselves?